India’s Orbital Diplomacy

With so much media attention on Modi’s visit to Israel, I thought I’d attempt a little counter-programming today by looking at India’s emerging space diplomacy. On July 3, Carnegie India published a briefing titled “India’s Regional Diplomacy Reaches Outer Space”. The article is authored by Shounak Set, an assistant professor of political science at Sidho Kanho Birsha University.

On May 5 2017, a GSLV rocket shot into the heavens from its launchpad in Sriharikota, off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. At some point after exiting the earth’s atmosphere, the launch vehicle placed into orbit a 2,230 kilogram South Asia Satellite dubbed GSAT-9. “Soon after separation from GSLV, the two solar arrays of the satellite were automatically deployed in quick succession and the Master Control Facility (MCF) at Hassan in Karnataka assumed control,” according to a statement from ISRO.

The 235-crore satellite should be operational for 12 years. It has a dozen Ku-band transponders for an assortment for “communications-related and meteorological applications” that will be available to the five participating SAARC nations besides India- Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. A sixth country, Afghanistan, may yet join up. Pakistan has opted out.

The launch was clearly a diplomatic affair. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena called in via video conference with a homily. ‘May this initiative support people in all regions, enhance economic conditions and help to eliminate poverty’ he said. Modi in turn called the launch ‘a historic day for South Asia.’

The opportunity

Shounak Set notes the key advantage of South Asian space cooperation: The region has geographical features ‘that transcend political boundaries, such as the Himalayan Mountains, the Thar Desert, the Bay of Bengal, the Sundarbans forest, transboundary rivers, and coastlines.’ Set concludes that satellites could enable projects that ‘involve cross-border management of common resources and other challenges could potentially greatly improve regional cooperation with minimal political costs.’

The limitations and challenges

Modi somewhat patronizingly described GSAT-9 as a “gift”. But it’s a gift some countries in the region have been hesitant to accept. While Pakistan’s non-participation is no surprise, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have their own concerns. According to Set, ‘Afghanistan is concerned because the South Asia Satellite’s position overlaps with the orbital slot of its own communications satellite, Afghansat 1, which has been in operation since 2014.’ And Bangladesh, which eventually signed up, is ‘hoping to make progress on its own geostationary communications satellite, Bangabandhu-1’.

Also, though Set does not discuss it, India is effectively in a space race with China. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have already launched their own communications satellites with Chinese help. And China is currently ‘in talks with Maldives, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal on future satellite launches.’

Perhaps the most sensible step India can take now is to move away from Modi’s idea of a ‘gift’ and focus on cooperation in future projects. India might win a lot more goodwill and leverage by helping SAARC countries (other than Pakistan) build and launch their own satellites and set up ground facilities to manage them. Such cooperation may provide greater reassurance and flexibility for the region’s small states- and generate more enthusiasm.

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